HATTIESBURG – Participants in the University of Southern Mississippi`s “New Year`s Eve in Havana” program will get a closer look at Cuba`s geography,
economy, culture, history and health care system while visiting some of Ernest Hemingway`s famous haunts when they visit the controversial island nation Dec. 31 to
Dr. Mark Miller, director of the Cuban studies program and associate dean of USM`s College of International and Continuing Education, will lead a group of 20
researchers, college students and others on his seventh-annual trek to study economic development in Cuba.
Participants will work with Cuban researchers, businesspeople and artists, and visit historic sites in Havana, rural areas of the country, the home province of Elian
Gonzales and several places where Hemingway lived and worked.
“We do not take sides with any particular political perspective,” said Miller. “Instead, we think the best way to combat propaganda is through first-hand learning and
USM is ranked as one of the nation`s top 10 schools among doctoral granting universities for its study abroad program, with the British studies program the largest of
its kind in the U.S. But it wasn`t until 1993 that Cuba was added to the program.
“Since we covered the Caribbean, it was a natural next step to cover the study of Cuba,” said Miller.
Nearly 150 participants have traveled to Cuba through the program, self-supported through fees paid by participants and operated under a license issued by the U.S.
Treasury Department. The biggest challenge of initiating the program was enduring “U.S. red tape,” Miller said.
“We were recently granted a three-year license through the Treasury Department and that has helped a lot,” said Miller. “But for the past several years, we have not
legally been able to bring businesspeople into the program, according to U.S. regulations. That`s a shame, because there`s such interest in the Mississippi business
community in the future potential for trade with Cuba.”
Rick Taylor, director of the Hattiesburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, who made the trip when he was a student at USM, said the experience was invaluable.
“It was not what I expected,” said Taylor, who previously worked in the tourism industry in the Caribbean. “As an American citizen, I had not been able to visit Cuba,
so I was really surprised to learn first-hand that the country has an extremely vibrant and strong tourism industry, probably the strongest I`ve seen in the Caribbean. I
was very impressed with Cuba`s savvy to grow a tourism industry without the impact of the wealthiest economy in the world located 90 miles away. They`ve been
successful in bringing Europeans, Canadians and South Americans to Cuba and converting that into a booming economy.”
Even though the country lacks technological advancements evident in the western hemisphere – 1940s model cars still travel the island`s rural roads – Taylor said he
did not find the antiquated third-world conditions he expected.
“In the city of Havana itself, there are difficult living conditions, with people living in tiny apartments, for example, but that`s the challenge that country faces,” he said.
Program participants are usually surprised to learn that Cubans do not harbor the ill will toward Americans that is often perceived in the media, Miller said.
“I`ve never been anywhere in the world that`s more different from its stereotype than Cuba,” he said. “People expect a lot of hostility, but we`ve found just the opposite.
Cubans are very open to the possibility of person-to-person relationships with Americans, very interested in the possibility of trading with the U.S., and in particular,
doing business with Mississippi. They recognize that our port is very well situated for trade with Havana. They recognize that Mississippi is very open to doing business
with Cuba. We complement each other economically in many ways. I think everyone recognizes great potential.”
When trade does open up again, Mississippi businesspeople should be among the first to do business with Cuba, Miller said.
“We`ve been thinking trade would open up for 40 years,” he said. “Fidel (Castro) is in his 70s, but the government is not the same as Fidel. Even if he were to die
tomorrow, it wouldn`t necessarily change anything. A lot of people think that it would, but it runs a good bit deeper than that.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.